The Worst Behaved of 2009

It’s been a sorry year for good behavior, with personalities both famous and not achieving notoriety for misdeeds that have shocked, tricked and saddened us. Whether through deception, publicity grabs, meanness or displays of rage, they have lowered the bar on manners to depths that seem unrecoverable. As such, the ten persons on this list are guilty not just of setting a poor example, but also of coarsening our expectations. With each public lapse, these “honorees” have taken away more of society’s innocence. They’ve taught us to trust less and suspect more. That is their greatest offense of all.

Presented here in order from merely bad to outright despicable, are the Ten Worst Behaved Individuals of 2009…

10) Joe Jackson

The eighty-year-old father of Michael Jackson shocked the public and, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, his family, too, when he used an interview at June’s B.E.T. Awards just days after the death of his son to plug a new record label. Not the sort of man who would ever have been up for a Father of the Year award, even for him, this was a move that showed incredible insensitivity. Opportunistic does not even begin to describe the move, which evoked the Michael Jackson lyric: “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make that change.”

9) Billy Bob Thornton

The one-time hubby of Angelina Jolie heaped a mound of disrespect on the people of Canada when he likened them to mashed potatoes without gravy. It was an insult he whipped up during a particularly uncomfortable interview he had granted with a Canadian radio program in April. Incensed that the show host dared mention the fact that Thornton was an “actor” when the primary purpose of their sit-down was to discuss the performer’s band, The Boxmasters, Thornton went on to complain: “You wouldn’t say that to Tom Petty, would you?”

8) Sharon Osbourne

During a November interview on the Opie & Anthony radio show, the raven-haired wife of rocker Ozzy Osbourne spewed a hateful stream of comments about British singing sensation Susan Boyle. Disparaging her looks in language mostly unusable in a column on manners, Osbourne (who has admitted to a multitude of plastic surgeries) insisted that the Britain’s Got Talent runner-up had been hit by “the ugly stick.” The real ugliness was in the cruelty of Osbourne’s words.

7) Tareq Salahi 6) Michaele Salahi

They certainly looked the part of invited guests: he in his sporty tux, she, with her blown-out blonde mane and bright red sari. Yet, as far as the White House is concerned, Tareq and Michaele Salahi are crashers who were most certainly not on the guest list for the Obamas’ first state dinner, given for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, on November 24. The Virginia couple has been subpoenaed to testify before Congress on January 20, though their attorney has indicated they will plead the Fifth Amendment. Thus, America may have to wait until the inevitable reality-show episode (whether The Real Housewives of Washington, D.C. or otherwise) to find out more.

5) Richard Heene

For the span of an October afternoon, television viewers the world over watched with knots in their stomachs as authorities chased down a runaway weather balloon that was purported to contain a six-year-old boy aptly named Falcon. When the balloon turned out to be empty, a search was begun on the ground. As authorities feared the worst—that Falcon had fallen to his peril—his father, Richard, watched his reality show-style ruse play out perfectly. The boy, as it turned out, was safe at home. Heene, a notorious publicity grabber, maintained that the whole episode was an innocent mistake before ultimately admitting the hoax in court a month later. He was sentenced to 90 days in prison on December 23. Perhaps a worse fate for Heene and his wife, Mayumi Iizuka, was the court-ordered ban on their making any profit from the charade for a period of four years.

4) Governor Mark Sanford

Hiking on the Appalachian Trail. That’s what he told his staff he’d be doing. Governor Mark Sanford then proceeded to vanish without a trace for four days in June, leaving his constituents and even his own family scratching their heads over his whereabouts. Turns out that South Carolina head of state was in Argentina the whole time—with a mistress. He ultimately confessed to his indiscretions, his wife moved out and his state’s legislature began impeachment proceedings. But fortunately for Sanford, who seemed not to be able to stop talking about his fidelity issues once the cat was out of the bag, his story was pushed way off the nation’s front pages by the death of Michael Jackson, which occurred one day after the governor’s reemergence. And despite reports of his misuse of public funds for his dalliances, the governor appears to have dodged the impeachment bullet as well, and will face nothing more than censure by the Judiciary Committee of the South Carolina House of Representatives.

3) Serena Williams

Her name connotes tranquility, but during her U.S. Open semifinals match against Kim Clijsters, in September, Serena Williams was anything but serene. During a set where she was certainly not playing up to her best standards, Williams was called on a foot fault, resulting in double fault. The loss of the point so enraged her that she marched over to the judge and (in profane language) proceeded to tell her that she was ready to shove a tennis ball down her throat. The unsportsmanlike conduct, which was beamed to global audiences, made even John McEnroe’s worst outbursts look tame. After a quick deliberation, the officials charged Williams with a penalty point—match point, as it happened. Williams, who spent much of the fall promoting her book On the Line, was fined $10,000 at the U.S. Open for her behavior and was charged with an additional fine of $82,500 in November. It was the steepest-ever fine for a tennis player, but nonetheless still chump change for an athlete with career earnings to date of an estimated $28 million.

2) Rep. Joe Wilson

On the list of places where hushing oneself is not only expected, it’s all but a commandment, the Capitol building during a president’s address to a joint session of Congress is about as high on the list as you can get. Yet, Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina apparently did not see it that way, shouting “You lie!” in the middle of President Obama’s address on healthcare in September. The President took the episode in stride and later accepted Wilson’s apology. But Wilson became a symbol (a rather delighted one at that) for boldly speaking out against the President’s policies. He also found himself with a bursting war chest for his 2010 reelection campaign, raising nearly $3 million for that effort, nearly 600% more than he raised during his previous election campaign. So much for keeping one’s mouth shut.

1) Kanye West

Can there be any doubt that the top spot for Worst Behaved Individual of 2009 should go to rapper Kanye West? His startling display of rudeness, barreling onstage during the MTV Video Music Awards shocked fans of music and manners alike. Grabbing the microphone from young Taylor Swift’s hand and announcing that he’d let her finish her speech only after he’d told the world he thought that Beyoncé Knowles had been robbed of the honor, West proved himself to be the year’s biggest boor. His pitiful attempts at apology, which didn’t involve actually reaching out to Swift until after he’d made half-hearted explanations of the episode on his web site, were nearly as disgraceful as his original act. By year’s end, Billboard magazine had named West the top male artist of the year; fittingly, Swift took top place for female artist of the year.

Special Bonus: Christian Bale

Our "Dishonorable Mention" for 2009

Technically, the actor’s misbehavior is ineligible for this year’s list because his transgression actually happened in 2008, but since the news was not leaked until February 2009, we have given him a nod anyway. His profanity-laced takedown of a lighting technician who had the misfortune to walk into one of Bale’s scenes during a filming of Terminator Salvation was one of the worst examples we’ve encountered to date of an entitled celebrity pulling a diva routine that crossed the line from mere frustration to behavior that cries out for a semester’s worth of anger management therapy.